Thursday, August 2, 2012

A petition to release government-developed software to the OSS community

In July 2012, a petition was created to mandate that U.S. federal government-developed software be released to the open source community. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I'd like to elaborate on some of the points made in the petition (highlighting is mine):
Openness: Open Sourcing ensures basic fairness and transparency by making software and related artifacts available to the citizens who provided funding, consistent with the President’s 2009 declaration that “Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset.”
If you pay taxes in the United States, then you are paying for the software developed by the government; taxpayers can reap maximum value for their investment by releasing that software to the open source community.

There's even a logical precedent for this; a "work of the United States government" is not entitled to copyright protection (essentially public domain). An excellent example is photos taken by the federal government, which are public domain and freely available.
Supports the Federal “Shared First” Agenda: Maximizes value to the government by significantly increasing reuse and collaborative development between federal agencies and the private sector...
I think this collaboration could result in a few interesting scenarios:

  • Software developed by the government (which costs taxpayers a significant sum of money) could be leveraged by private sector developers, just as software developed by the private sector and then open sourced has driven so many fantastic projects. In fact, the National Security Agency has already given their Accumulo NoSQL database to Apache.
  • Private sector developers could actually improve the software the government has developed! Imagine what some of those sharp Google Summer of Code developers could do for a summer project! That sounds to me like democracy for the 21st century.
  • Open sourcing the software could be an important bridge to opening up the wealth data our government collects. Obviously there would be privacy and security concerns, but far more data would be released if private sector developers were contributing new APIs to open sourced government software.

What you can do

The easiest thing you can do is sign the petition and get the word out through whatever channels you prefer (Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, whatever). 

Unfortunately, the petition needs 25,000 signatures by August 16 to receive a White House response; with less than 700 signatures as of August 2, this seems unlikely. However, this petition could just be the beginning of a movement. The more publicity it gets, the more likely it will be that the effort will take off.